Demythologization of the Subject

Author: Cardinal Pericle Felici


Cardinal Pericle Felici

The meaning and the value of certain words quite frequently change from one era to another and from one place to another. For this reason, in my recent article The Demythologization of the Superior which appeared in this newspaper on December 5th, I said that the word "demythologization" could have various meanings and that when one speaks of it one must specify the meaning which is intended. This I did very clearly, or at least it seemed so to me, in the above mentioned article. With such words, however, one must be careful to protect oneself from the danger and damage of the deception suffered by Troy by the "innocent" introduction of a horse, which appeared to be a precious gift. They present you with in "innocent" term and then you find yourself faced with a pernicious error. "With imprecise speech—as St. Thomas said—one finishes by falling into heresy". (I. q. 31 to 2).

Having said this, we will speak of another "demythologization", that of the subordinate, the correlative of the "demythologization" of the superior about which we have already spoken.

Today the word "subject" sounds bad to many. A certain egalitarianism, proclaimed in the name of a not very well understood dignity of the human person, is decidedly opposed to the term. Yet, to remain on the purely human level how many willingly become subjects for the purpose of disputable moral values or for ambition or cowardice! In a current popular song a man in love even calls himself the bedside carpet of the woman he loves and then insists that this is his proper place which he will not cede to anyone.

But we can classify as "subjects": citizens, the faithful, sons, disciples, friends, etc. according to the particular social context to which they belong. In fact, a subordinate relationship always exists towards those who, in general are called superiors, but who can also be called, in a more expressive sense, those responsible, or the heads of the public sphere, popes, bishops etc., fathers, teachers.

It is not my intention to discuss the essence of that relationship which varies according to the type of society and according to the responsibilities deriving therefrom on superiors and subjects. In fact, the contributions which the subjects (if I may permit myself the use of this word to simplify the discussion) can or must make toward the wellbeing of the society are many and range from placing all his energies at the disposition of the community and from a constructive dialogue with the superiors and with his friends and colleagues, to obedience toward those who hold and exercise legitimate power. These last words must be carefully weighed. Obedience should be given to those who hold legitimate power. Legitimate—that is, that which is attributed by the law. In a well ordered society just as the law regulates the rights of the subjects it also regulates the rights and the duties of superiors. A superior who does not respect the law by which he is bound, cannot, in that field, demand obedience of his subjects. This is true especially when the superior openly and clearly violates the law of God.

For obedience it is also necessary that the superior should intend to exercise and does in fact exercise his legitimate power and that he show this clearly. In fact, the superior can sometimes renounce his right in order to leave a greater liberty to the subject, on the basis of prudence which the law itself often permits and acknowledges.

When it is quite clear that the superior commands within the limits of his competence, the subject has no choice but to obey, to adhere to the will of the superior and to follow his orders since the superior is the legitimately established authority. The expression, "to obey as a corpse" has never appealed to me. But the concept which it implies, that of a ready and willing obedience carried to the point of sacrifice, "to the death of the cross" (Phil., 28), not only appeals to me but must also be vigorously reaffirmed today in the face of the doctrinal and disciplinary disturbances of many who should give an example of obedience, and the consequent scandal to the faithful.

We venerate the Saints who heroically practised obedience and we appreciate the precious fruits of that obedience for the ecclesiastical body. On the other hand, the "new" obedience—hedged about with "buts" and "howevers"—is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Council. The high-sounding and, empty voices of those who preach it sow only confusion.

We must "rebuild the dykes which many have broken and try to keep broken", as a North American parish priest recently wrote to me.

I recall what P. Herling wrote about St. Francis: "(He) gave life to a popular movement—and it was truly a popular movement—without instilling in the masses those uncontrollable enthusiasms which were employed by the founders of some non-Christian religions." In fact, "he liked to collaborate with the ecclesiastical authorities" to whom he gave faithful obedience, in contrast to the leaders of other popular movements which failed miserably or which fell into heresy ("Storia delta Chiesa", Roma 1967, p. 266).

Certainly the superior can make mistakes in giving orders. He acts in virtue of power received from God and that power is used by inadequate human agents who do not always penetrate the profound designs of God. But the possible mistake of the superior does not authorize the disobedience of the subjects. In fact, the principle that the authority is constituted for the good of the society and the subjects themselves, remains supreme even if a superior commits an error of prudence or wisdom. The subject can certainly explain to the superior, through a frank exchange of ideas, the reasons which make him feel that the order given was mistaken or not suitable. He can even call for the intervention of higher authority to examine the situation again and eventually correct the error. But the subject cannot arbitrarily refuse to obey nor, as some theologians maintain today, can he invoke a certain "epikeia", according to which, in such cases, he could do as he sees fit. If one were to establish a similar principle without further clarifications, a certain free will would undoubtedly triumph since many would choose to see error in any legitimate order which calls for some sacrifice. "There must be no tumult in the State", the Romans said wisely. It is therefore preferable to tolerate a situation in which there is occasional error than to undermine the principle of authority, which would be fatal for all.

Obedience, however, is not an easy virtue and, in the order of grace, it cannot be perfect without profound charity, which is a gift of God to be asked daily from the Lord. Undoubtedly the difficulty is caused by pride which, like a bad friend, is always with us until death and even, as one good man said, until three days after death and perhaps longer. In the cemetery of Barcelona I saw a very simple grave, with a little crown bearing the inscription "A mi misma con todo carino", (To myself, with all my affection). Long live sincerity!

Pride is often veiled in specious ways and the first of these is humility, a virtue which is so noble and esteemed by men that even arrogance likes to assume its appearance. Here is where we need demythologization. We must watch out for the trap and not trust those who use humility unsparingly. Did not Jesus warn us to guard against those who come to us, dressed as lambs but underneath are really ravening wolves? Is not the lamb the symbol of humility and sincerity, and the wolf the symbol of pride and double play? Phaedro wrote a famous fable about the lamb and the wolf. It ends like this: "This fable is written for those who oppress the innocent with deceptions" (vv. 14-15).

But pride is not hard to recognize in spite of the various disguises under which it masquerades. The most insidious enemy of obedience is the false view of the dignity of the person. We say false, because when correctly understood, it is good, both in the order of nature and of grace and it can make an excellent contribution to the human and supernatural formation. It certainly takes much light to see clearly in this matter and we will never repeat often enough the prayer of the blind man in the Gospel: "Lord, that I may see!"

Truly, the presumed rights of our personality are often the splendid vestments in which the devil of pride and disobedience bursts out from the shadows of the subconscious (excuse the allusion to Freudian psychodynamics) into the open field of the conscience and of social living. Thus with all the rumpus that many make in claiming rights which they do not have, how will it be possible to maintain peace and order? How will we preserve that equilibrium of rights and duties which is absolutely essential for social life.

Often we hear about the freedom that superiors are accused of oppressing. No one denies that this can sometimes happen and we alluded to this indirectly above. But what is freedom? There are many types, and the current concept is that liberty consists in being able to do one thing or another, different or contrary things, in being able to carry out all action or forego it.

In fact the concept of freedom is much more profound. It consists in the complete dominion which we have over our actions and, from this point of view, freedom is the true participation, analogical yes, but true, in the highest dominion which belongs to God alone. Here is a confrontation of freedom and rights which makes us think. In fact,

a right, no matter how one defines it, is a participation in God's dominion over creation.

Since the source is one and the same, God, there cannot be a disharmony between freedom and rights, between the freedom of man and the social order, between the rights of the superior and those of the subject. Let us recall the ancient principle: "my right ends where yours begins". This refers, obviously, to true rights. It is all a question of establishing wise and just laws and seeing that they are observed by all with a spirit of justice, equality and charity. One who crosses these limits, whether he be a superior or subject, violates the social order and does not contribute to the common good. We recall the image of the vine and its branches. The branch that is broken from the vine, withers and dies. The legitimate authority must sometimes declare this sad fact, so that the other healthy branches do not risk the danger of infection and death. But, in reality, the withering and death occur independently of the intervention of authority although it be beneficial for other reasons.

Since obedience is quite a difficult virtue, the wise superior will help the subject in exercising it. And this is also his duty—a duty of pastoral charity, especially for the Bishop.

The superior has the duty of a personal asceticism, which makes him strong and gentle, in the example of Christ, and which prompts him to an attentive and generous study of the psychology of command, which is necessary today more than ever, as well as the many spiritual, psychological, and material needs of his sons, not only to have a speculative knowledge of these things, which would be sterile, but to be able to meet these needs with a deep spirit of pastoral charity.

We have spoken of strength and gentleness. These virtues must be wisely harmonized so that the strength is not transformed into unnecessary severity and the gentleness does not degenerate into weakness and gullibility.

I have always thought that the obedience of the subjects is a grace for the Pastor that he must pray for daily. And he himself must give an example of obedience to those who are his superiors. He must avoid, in every way, aspiration to high office, especially those which carry responsibility of command. Ambition for "prelacy"—is a recurring theme in the Holy Fathers which recalls, in substance, the doctrine of the Lord—it is one of the most alluring but it is also very dangerous and it is therefore dangerous to let oneself be bewitched by it. The subjects—sons, disciples, whatever they are—have sharp eyes, and heaven help us if they discover the Achilles heel in the superior. Certainly this does not exempt them from obedience, but it makes obedience at least psychologically more difficult.

The pastoral Rule of St. Gregory says some useful and precious things on this subject. Let us read it and meditate upon it. all of us-superiors and subjects, fathers and sons, masters and disciples. It was written thirteen centuries ago but it is still pertinent, and, above all, it was written by a great Pope, one of the most distinguished persons in the history of the Church.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 December 1968, page 10

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